Who’s Hot and Who’s Not is pretty cut and dry this week. Much of the action occurred on the bubble, with rookie drivers like Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon failing to make any ground on potential Chase berths. Veterans fighting to make the playoffs benefited from their lack of experience, while drivers with a lot of momentum remained on top.
That’s not to say that this post-Michigan International Speedway edition is completely uneventful. A few stars already in the 16-driver field are sliding at the worst possible time, while another lock – just 20th in the standings – is showing flashes of what it will take to compete for the title.
Next, Bristol Motor Speedway will be a huge test for those trying to keep their cool (that means you, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman) in the closing stages of the regular season. Here are the key notes entering Thunder Valley.
There’s no need to turn back the clock. Jeff Gordon showed he has plenty left in the tank with a victory in the Pure Michigan 400 Sunday, his second in four races and third of the season. Gordon hasn’t lost any speed in his 22nd Sprint Cup Series campaign; if anything, he’s faster than ever.
Gordon occupies the top spot in Hot or Not for his chart-topping mph numbers as well as his series-leading trip to Victory Lane. He might not be Cup’s biggest points-getter recently (he can thank a sudden loss of power at Watkins Glen for that) but there is no one faster. Not even last week’s Hot or Not darling and early-season speed freak Kevin Harvick measures up to Gordon lately.
That next-level horsepower was on display at MIS, as Gordon ran away from Harvick in the closing laps. It also shows up on the starting grid, where the No. 24 Chevrolet routinely lines up inside the top 5.
For the time being, the speed crown (and points lead) belongs to Gordon. However, If stability comes into question, fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the answer. Earnhardt isn’t slumping into the Chase – not yet, at least. He too appears stronger than ever, with an 11th at the Glen and fifth in the Irish Hills, following his sweep of Pocono.
Gordon sits in the spotlight for the time being, but Earnhardt is perfecting what he’s become known for: consistent, building results.
Denny Hamlin has been on a similar run since the Coke Zero 400. Maybe getting knocked around in those two Big Ones was enough to finally wake the Joe Gibbs Racing driver up after his back injury and eye problem. Somehow he finished sixth in that race and has been on a roll ever since that is reminiscent of his previous self.
Hamlin might lack the recent points output of Earnhardt (after taking innovation a step too far at Indianapolis, a move that resulted in a 75-point deduction) and high-profile crew chief Darian Grubb for a few more races, but his results are on par with Hendrick’s No. 88 powerhouse. Including that day in the Sunshine State, Hamlin has top 10s in five of six races (and a 24th at the Glen seems like one in comparison to many of his previous road course showings). Points aside, Hamlin’s 9.5 average finish over the past six races is bested only by Earnhardt’s 8.33.
Looking for potential winners of IRWIN Tools Night Race? Check out two of the next five drivers on that list (no, not Terry Labonte – 11th at Daytona – although he was very tough in Bristol’s bullring in his day).
Like Hamlin, Clint Bowyer is hitting his stride during ESPN’s Race to the Chase. With four top nines over that span, Bowyer has saved his best for when he needs to most: right now. Its taken the No. 15 team several months to climb out of a deep hole, and now Bowyer sits squarely on the playoff bubble entering a date with very favorable circuit.
Joey Logano is riding a four-race top-six streak that has elevated him to fourth in the standings, equaling his season-high mark, and is beginning to show signs of more than just qualifying potential at the 0.533-mile speedway.
Carl Edwards is locked into the Chase, while all signs point to a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing in the near future. What could possibly be wrong? Well, Edwards won’t race for JGR until next season, assuming he is the focus of its upcoming announcement, and although he is in the playoffs, he’s in anything but championship form.
Edwards couldn’t get the handle on his No. 99 Ford at Michigan en route to a 23rd – a repeat of his result there in June – even after Roush Fenway Racing spent a test at the track in an effort to regain its edge there. Loose seemed like the most common word out of Edwards’ mouth Sunday, yet Jimmy Fennig and crew couldn’t find the remedy. The team’s inability to keep up with adjustments is one reason why Edwards has struggled through the summer months, and one explanation as to why his Bristol outlook isn’t bright despite winning there in March. The other is Edwards’ library of results prior to his first ever Bristol victory. Over a four race stretch there from 2012-2013 Edwards had no finish better than 18th and averaged a 29.5-place result.
Kyle Busch will look to improve upon his 29th at Bristol earlier this season, and given his recent run of misfortune than includes finishes of 42nd, 40th and 39th, desperately needs to. That’s really, really bad, especially with his reputation as a choke artist down the stretch. His strong Bristol resume is the only reason he hasn’t been regulated to the cold category.
Kurt Busch was once hailed as a maestro at Bristol. Four wins over a five-race span from 2004–2006 cemented that reputation and helped him on the road to a 2004 NSCS championship, but those days are long gone. Busch slowly lost his short-track edge in the years to follow, culminating in finishes of 28th or worse in three of the last four events there.
At Michigan, things went from bang-up to banged up in a much shorter time frame. Busch appeared destined for at least a top-5 finish, utilizing aggressive tactics over a flurry of late-race restarts. That was before Busch lost control of his car and pancaked it against the wall. A 31st-place finish later, Busch is traveling to whats become one of his worst tracks 23rd in the standings.
Busch’s debut campaign with Stewart-Haas Racing more closely resembles his lost season in 2012 split between Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing than anything else, and that’s highly disappointing, given his seat with a championship-winning organization.
For now, it looks as if Trevor Bayne won’t pilot a NSCS car for Roush Fenway Racing, another championship organization, until next season. A company-wide lack of horsepower at RFR doesn’t help to improve the outlook, but Bayne himself is the main reason for this week’s Hot or Not appearance. His 30.4 average finish this season is the worst of his part-time NSCS career, and things have bottomed out with back-to-back 43rd- and 41st-place results. If Bayne’s form with the Wood Brothers of late is an indication, he will be looking forward to a very unsatisfying year.